Street Vendors and Empty Promises

As Stuyvesant students, we understand that the street vendor population in our city is indispensable; our go-to orders at the halal and Korean food carts have stayed fresh on our minds even after a six-month hiatus.

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By Emily Chen

For the successive months after the pandemic first presented itself in New York City, we ate our favorite restaurant entrees out of plastic takeout containers, with cloth-bundled silverware exchanged for single-use cutlery and a bottomless bag of napkins. The time when we would again be served in-person platters and aromatic spreads no longer seemed within close reach. As we patiently endured springtime in the city, counties in Connecticut and New Jersey gradually received an okay to re-open dining services, while New York City eateries watched in understanding but deep envy. Days under lockdown grew into weeks and months, and by June 22, Cuomo cleared New York City—the former global epicenter—for outdoor dining. The precautions that disallowed indoor service from resuming, to the dismay of struggling restaurants, were drawn from Cuomo’s fear about the warning signs “from other states on the horizon.”

In anticipation of a sudden clamor for outdoor dining tables, restaurateurs scrambled to erect outdoor seating and barriers for the street space adjacent to their restaurants, transforming the city sidewalks into bustling woodworking stations. While the brick and mortar eateries were back in business, the decision to grant restaurants free rein over street space was yet another blow to New York City’s forgotten food population: street vendors. The temporary outdoor dining program, introduced at the New York City Council, has permitted restaurants to occupy plazas, sidewalks, streets, and parking lots—in many cases displacing vendor carts and street-food trucks that had been serving out of these very places for years. Forced to relocate, vendors lost many of their day-to-day patrons, a slowdown that was further perpetuated by a drastic reduction in foot traffic throughout the city during the three-month lockdown. The network of vendor carts around Stuyvesant, for one, rely on a midday rush of students—a demographic of customers who have not spent a dime at these same carts since the March closure of the school building.

Vendors have already been economically underserved by the government throughout the course of the pandemic: a large fraction of the city vendor population is comprised of undocumented immigrants who were not afforded stimulus checks back in April. A resilient group of 20,000 hardworking individuals who serve much of the working class in the city, vendors are rarely represented in local legislation and are often overlooked by lawmakers in Albany. This precedent of hostility toward street vendors was cemented by a 1981 law that capped the number of street vendor permits at 5,000, essentially whittling down the industry to an elite hobby, not a passage for the American Dream. The mismanaged vendor license system, which emerged out of this antiquated legislation, has forced aspiring vendors to pay up to $18,000 for a retail $200 permit in order to sell legally out of their carts. The strict cap on vendor permit availability, which has remained unchanged for four decades, has not kept pace with the extensive population growth of the city and has authorized over-policing of vendors. Evelia Coyotzi, a tamale vendor in Corona, Queens, was arrested more than 15 times, not for breaking well-defined laws and rules, but for selling her authentic Tlaxcalan cuisine in the wrong place at the wrong time—namely, an era during which the police and former mayor Rudy Giuliani reportedly did not want a single vendor on the streets.

A community that has long been subject to Albany’s cold shoulder, street vendors now have a chance to pass legislation that would support the industry in a period of unprecedented need—Intro 1116. Council members Margaret Chin and Carlos Menchaca pioneered a bill that would “aim to bring increased opportunities, fairness, and consistent enforcement to a chaotic system created by a decades-old cap that has forced many vendors to turn to an underground market for licenses.” Intro 1116 would directly expand the availability of vending permits, implement an official vendor advisory board, and create an office for street vendor enforcement.

As Stuyvesant students, we understand that the street vendor population in our city is indispensable; our go-to orders at the halal and Korean food carts have stayed fresh on our minds even after a six-month hiatus. The vendors themselves were more than just faces we would pass as we trekked down Chambers Street—we exchanged daily greetings and smiles, and they knew our orders at the mere sight of us. For all of the affordable lunches that they served to us, it is now our obligation to support the bill that might very well keep their businesses alive in these troubled times. These vendors deserve more than our thoughts and prayers—they need decisive action.

If your life has been bettered by a street vendor, or if you want to protect these resolute workers with families and dreams, I urge you to take to the following actions: call your council member and urge them to support Intro 1116; call Corey Johnson, the speaker of the New York City Council, and remind him that you care about street vendors in our city; and, finally, try to buy your next meal from a local street vendor. They have always been there for us at our every convenience—now imagine a New York City without them.